The results from our 2018 Job Satisfaction Survey make it abundantly clear that most in-house counsel crave upward mobility within their current law departments.
When we present a new opportunity to a candidate, especially if the position is at a Senior Counsel or Assistant General Counsel level, one of the first questions they inevitably ask is the ladder climb one: What is the likelihood and time frame for promotion? They ask this question well before we even get to the first interview. Experienced in-house counsel are more realistic and logical when evaluating the lay of the land vs. straight-from-a-law-firm candidates, but that’s simply because in-house counsel have seen the dynamic first hand. The bottom line is that everyone asks.
So, if you are the General Counsel seeking to make a new hire, how do you manage promotion and title expectations? Unless you are making the hire with successorship specifically in mind, you want to be careful while also using this as an opportunity to test on culture fit.
There are two very different ways a General Counsel can view this topic, and I have lots of experience with both. About half of you take this view: I want someone who will be happy in the role as-is, who won’t bug me on Day Two for a promotion, and who won’t fit culturally if they are restless and thinking about titles. About half of you take this view: I want Type A driven ambitious hires, and I’ll manage it.
GCs should only hire people who are aligned with their way of thinking about the opportunity at hand and career advancement generally! And be ridiculously candid with your recruiter and with the candidate directly about what the new hire should expect. Never oversell the opportunity. Even if you fall into the camp of GCs who want restlessly ambitious souls, be realistic with them about how far and how fast they can go under your umbrella.
There are some questions you can ask to get a sense of the expectations you will inevitably need to manage post-hire. The “where do you see yourself in five years” question is helpful. I recommend asking the candidate about promotions at prior companies or firms. How did the promotional opportunity come about? Expected or unexpected? Did the candidate leapfrog a more senior attorney in landing a promotion? Did she have to ask for the promotion? Questions along these lines will give you a sense not only of the individual’s expectations, but also of the corporate culture at which she cut her teeth.
Most candidates for in-house positions know, either from experience or because they have been coached, to take a modest approach at the interview—the “aw shucks” I just want to add value and be a good team player approach. That is, frankly, the best approach for a candidate to take in the absence of more information about what the interviewer may prefer. If you are the GC, you want to press with questions that will test if you are hearing the candidate’s true self, or if you are getting an interview persona.
Most GC’s assume attorneys are fairly ambitious, and their “BS” radar starts to kick-in when candidates get a little too humble. There is some back and forth to this conversation that can start to feel a little sterile. My advice is to persistently press until you feel the interviewee is “getting real” with you. And then hire the person who fits with the expectations you feel good about managing.